25 Years In LA Part 5: 'Bat Out Of Hell,' Skywalker Ranch, and Film Nerd 2.0
I have spent most of the past year trying to destroy myself.
The good news is that I seem to be reaching the end of that stage of things. I am not a particularly happy person these days, but I think there's a way to be happy again. It will require a pretty major shift in lifestyle on my part, but when you've blown up everything that you know already, what's a little more reinvention?
Let me say that I'm sorry it took so long for me to finish these articles. By the end of this piece, I'll have written something like 25,000 words, which seems appropriate. But that's a whole lot of self-reflection, and what started as a fun look back for me became surprisingly bittersweet. The more I've reflected on the way I've ended up where I am right now, the more I find myself wrestling with regret. That's a hard place to be at 45 when there are people counting on you, but one of the things I've tried to do with my writing has been make it honest, and when I'm being honest, then I have to confess… I feel somewhat lost.
There's a picture I think we all have in our heads of what the world around us should be, and i know that in my own case, how happy I am or how content I am is based on how closely my life lines up with that picture. That is a fool's errand, and as the distance between life and the picture grew to what seemed an uncrossable gulf over the last year, I let despair get hold of me. My charming insomnia became my crippling insomnia, and I have spent whole days staring at the computer screen, struggling to put two or three sentences in order on the page. It can be very hard sometimes because my years are all structured the same. Sundance, SXSW, Cannes, Comic-Con, Toronto, Fantastic Fest. Whatever else happens each year, those events serve as a spine on which everything else is overlaid. That can be great when it's been a good year, but I know that I felt like I was in a much better place last year as I was about to leave for Comic-Con, and feeling like I've taken fifteen steps backwards is making this week particularly tough.
One of the things that has weighed on me most during this has been my particular style of reviewing things. I wish that during this last year, I could have turned off the personal side of things, but I can't. Truth is, I don't know how to write any other type of reviews. If I ever found myself pressed into service in a place where I had to remove all personal traces from what I publish, I'd probably collapse before I even got a single piece published. Putting myself in my work, though, takes a toll when I am not feeling like I have a handle on who I am.
These articles may have flayed me a bit, but they also seem to be pointing the way to whatever's next, and I think some in-depth self-inspection is probably important. Painful? Sure. But important. It's been a reminder of who I am and what I've done so far and what it is I still want to do.
We just recently had Joe Dante in to the HitFix studios to talk about his latest film "Burying The Ex," and it seems appropriate to kick off this last column with a failure that I took especially hard.
21. The near-miss of "Bat Out Of Hell"
One of the things that became increasingly clear the longer I worked as a writer was that control is the one thing that is worth trading away money, and the more control you have over your own material, the better the chance you'll actually be proud of whatever it is you produce. If you want to get a film made, you need to make the package fiendishly attractive to people, and one of the ways is by coming up with a script that is easy to produce.
Scott and I were kicking around various locked-room or closed-location thrillers when we put together "Bat Out Of Hell," which quickly became one of our favorite scripts we'd written. We were having drinks one night with our friend Craig Titley, and he loved the idea, and happened to call a friend of his over to hear our description of it. His friend told us he was prepared to make us a money offer right there to lock the script down, and instead of listening to that voice in the back of my head saying, "Keep full control of the script," we signed on to give someone else control for two full years. Big mistake.
At first, things looked good. People were talking about casting ideas, and we were talking to directors, and very quickly, a favorite of ours became the only guy for the job. It made us happy when Joe Dante came onboard, and he brought his longtime producer Mike Finnell on as well. I love those guys, and I love their shared filmography. It was thrilling to us every single time we got on the phone with them to hear their thoughts.
The film was set on an airplane, a redeye flight from NY to LA, and our main characters were a group of hijackers who took control of the plane not long after it took off. They explained their actions very rationally: according to them, there were a group of vampires traveling in first class, with their Master in the cargo hold. The hijackers explained that they just wanted to kill the vampires and destroy the Master, and as long as they were allowed to do that, they would release the plane and surrender to authorities. If not, they were willing to take the whole thing down.
The rest of the film is just a ticking clock working from that starting point, with most of the movie taking place in that enclosed space. For that reason, the plane was one of the most important parts of the picture we were going to make, and finding a state that had the right tax incentives and also had soundstage space that worked for what we needed turned out to be incredibly difficult. We needed to be able to build a plane set on a gimbal so we could turn it in pretty much any direction, and that meant we needed a taller than average soundstage, something that very few states have available in any form.
We were also struggling with casting. For those of you unfamiliar with the way casting works these days, every working actor is worth a certain amount of overseas financing. The more hits you've had and the higher your visibility, the more you're worth. And nothing matters when you're putting together indie financing from overseas sources as much as those numbers matter, so even if you can make the case for someone based on talent, it's wasted effort. I remember arguing that Bradley Cooper was right for one of the roles and hearing from our producer, "That guy isn't worth a dime. Stop mentioning him. No one's ever going to give us money to make a Bradley Cooper movie." That was about a year before the release of "The Hangover," and, yes, I did take great pleasure in bringing that up later. That fleeting moment of satisfaction is pretty much all the payback I'll ever get from the process, though, because most of what happened with "Bat" was just plain frustrating. Little by little, we watched as inertia took over, and the promises from the money side of the equation started to dry up. We heard about deals that were going to change everything. We heard a lot of talk about where the money was coming from. And then, after a certain point, we heard nothing.
I hate when things turn antagonistic. I've had plenty of films that haven't happened for one reason or another. In most case, I still know the other principal players, and I am happy to have had the creative experiences with them. There was a home invasion thriller I worked on with Scott Swan and producers Mike Fleiss and Guillermo Del Toro for a little while, and at the end of that, we all walked away friends. The same thing happened on a South American horror film we wrote while working with a company called Chatrone. We still really enjoy the two execs we worked with, and we had a great time working on it. But with "Bat," there was such a concentrated and almost cheerful dropping of the ball that I ended up livid at the producer who just couldn't produce. When the time came for us to either re-up his option on the material or end the arrangement, we were very careful not to call any attention to the renewal date. We only brought it up once it had safely passed and we were in full control of the material again. At that point, we were told, "They want to renew the deal one more time. They're pretty sure they've got some European money coming in."
My response was simple. "We will renew their option for one year, but we have two conditions. First, we want a million bucks. Cash. Second, I get to punch [insert producer's name here] in the face, real hard, one time." We made it clear that these were our actual and only terms, and had our reps reach out with our offer.
Oddly, the producer never followed up again. I'd still love to make the movie, but to some degree, this particular failure was the one that knocked the wind out of my sails as a screenwriter. It felt like we got as close as we ever had, and it still just fell apart in the end. There's only so much of that anyone can take before it becomes too much trouble to push another rock up the hill.
I was looking for a change, and did not expect the one that arrived.
22. The birth of HitFix
There have been a few moments in my life where I have had to make decisions that I knew would define an era of my life, but with no way of knowing what would happen as a result. When I was first approached by Greg Ellwood and Jen Sargent, they had a distinct vision for what HitFix was going to be. The more they talked about it, the more I believed they could pull it off.
The truth is that by the time they approached me, I wanted out of Ain't It Cool. My relationship with Harry had been dented because of the business side of things, and I didn't feel like my effort was going to be rewarded with any real payoff down the road. I'm not even talking about money. It just became increasingly clear that Ain't It Cool was never going to be a bigger thing than it was. We did produce a half-hour pilot for Comedy Central for a television version of "Ain't It Cool," and I think we could have had a lot of fun if the show had ever moved forward. I don't even have a copy of the pilot these days, but I'd love to see the animated Moriarty sequence again just out of curiosity. But if anything sums up the ambivalence I was feeling towards the site towards the end of my time there, it was the way my last name was misspelled in the credits of the pilot. Twice. Two different ways.
Because Ain't It Cool was always treated as such a casual thing, it never felt like a real job. It put money in my pocket, but not a living wage. It certainly helped me build an online presence, but it also absolutely cost me work. It was a mixed blessing from day one, and a wild ride, and a huge experience, but I had reached a point where I just couldn't keep writing about a narrow range of material for an audience that seemed to stay the same age while growing increasingly hostile. I had just moved into my first house, and it felt like a major turning point in my life.
So when Greg Ellwood was beginning to look around for writers, a mutual friend pointed him in my direction. I'd known Greg already from his time as a publicist and from his work at MSN Movies. If you watch the movie "Race To Witch Mountain," there's a scene set at a UFO convention, and there's a footchase set in the main exhibition hall. Look closely, and you'll see Greg and I play a scene together as extras. When we shot the scene, HitFix was just a loose conversation that had started, and when the film came out, HitFix was up and running, a huge gamble for all of us involved. It's sort of heartbreaking for me to watch Dan Fienberg head out the door this week, because Dan was there for all of those early conversations as well. He was a big part of helping me make my mind up to take the job, because he seemed so sure that we could make a go of it. When you're part of a start-up, there is this sense of shared adventure. Ain't It Cool was always something of an accident for me. I stumbled into that. With HitFix, I walked in with my eyes wide open, and from day one, I was part of an intentional attempt to build something.
I'm not sure what the future of HitFix is at this point, but I believe that we will continue to evolve and grow, just as we have for the last six years. What HitFix offered me, and what I have attempted to offer to you as an audience, was a freedom to follow my interests in any direction that presents itself. I've been able to write about a much broader range of films. I've been able to write about books and games and television and more. I've been able to try various things and experiment with format. And, yes, I have experienced my own form of burn-out at times. But HitFix has been a home for me in a way I've never had, and with the addition of Richard Rushfield, I'm experiencing my first real editor/writer relationship of my professional life, something that I think is pushing me to become a better writer.
Since today, July 6, is the tenth birthday of my first-born son, Toshiro Lucas McWeeny, it seems appropriate to spotlight what I consider my favorite thing about HitFix...
23. The rise of Film Nerd 2.0
If I had ever consciously tried to create something like Film Nerd 2.0, I could not have. It's not that kind of a column. Instead, it arose very organically as I started watching Toshi come into focus. I knew that my kids would grow up around a larger-than-average amount of media, and as soon as we had Toshi, I started actively thinking about what that meant and how we would handle his exposure to media.
These days, Film Nerd 2.0 is more than just a column I publish here on the site. It's basically become a lifeline between me and my children as we work through a very difficult time in our lives. It is a way for me to help push their learning forward, a chance to communicate with them in a way that I know punches past the outer layer. There is much that I say to them that bounces right off. That's just how it works with kids and parents. But there is nothing I have screened for them that they don't recall immediately, and our conversations about those films seem to stick in the same way. I have made these screenings an important part of the way we relate, and the way they have flowered as thinkers and as people is enough to make me think that I might be doing some small part of this thing right.
Film Nerd 2.0 is more than just the columns. It's the experiences as well. For god's sake… this happened:
That's a real thing. That is a memory that my son is going to have for the rest of his life. I find that to be almost too great to believe, but there it is… video proof. And for every one thing I've shared here on the site, there have been five or ten things I haven't. Our lives have been so rich because of these things we've shared and, more importantly, the people that we've shared them with, and right now, I am fiercely protective of anything that might help usher my boys through what can be a disastrous time for kids. I paused that video of Toshi while I was working, and it happened to land on an image that is just pure beaming happiness --
-- and the idea that I can take my work, which is something that demands long hours simply because of the mechanical demands of writing, and turn it into something that brings that kind of joy to my kids? That's like winning the lottery. And because of that, I had a pretty profound realization in the last few years. This is not a day job. This is not a temporary home while I'm on my way to my next creative job. HitFix gave me a place to launch Film Nerd 2.0, and Film Nerd 2.0 is the thing I am most proud of so far. At all. The mail I get from other parents, and from people who aren't parents yet, and from people who were raised by parents who didn't share their love of movies and from people whose parents did… it helped me understand that the reason the column speaks to people is because this is the missing piece is writing about movies. Yes… a movie is a thing that exists by itself. It has a beginning and an end, and the movie is the same anywhere it's played, any time it is played. But that's not what a movie is when someone thinks about that movie, because the movie is also who they saw it with, where they saw it, how they saw it. The movie is all the stuff they carried into the theater with them, and it is all of the memories or feelings that the movie stirs in that viewer, for whatever reasons they are stirred. Our feelings about movies are never just about the movies, and writing Film Nerd 2.0 drove that idea home for me in a way that nothing else ever quite did.
Film Nerd 2.0 is going to become something bigger in the next year. Part of that will involve live events, where we can share these films on a larger scale. Part of that will involve a book project that I believe I'll be crowdfunding soon. And part of that will involve… well, maybe I'll keep that last part a secret for now. Let's just say that all of this input should start resulting in some output, and Toshi's going to start looking at ways of turning his nascent love of film into something more. The only reason any of this is possible is because HitFix gave me room to explore an idea as fully as I wanted to, and that exploration has been hugely rewarding so far.
24. Skywalker Ranch with Toshi
Technically, I guess this is still part of the Film Nerd 2.0 entry, but I think of this as a particular event, a very special milestone.
After all, I was banned from the Ranch. In one of my more infamous moments, I managed to cost an entire group of AICN folks a trip out to Skywalker Ranch. I told the story in print, and that began a long and seemingly permanent exile from any and all direct involvement with the people who created one of the things I love the most in this world. By the time I was starting to think about how to show "Star Wars" to my kids, I had accepted that there was nothing that was going to get me anywhere near the Ranch. It just wasn't even a question anymore.
Then one day, I'm sitting in the living room of the condo where we stayed for Sundance, and there was an e-mail from Fox asking if I'd like to attend a press day for "The Phantom Menace 3D" at Lucasfilm/ILM in San Francisco and at Skywalker Ranch. I got immediately excited, but then realized it was probably a mistake. I had to clarify it with them, and once it became clear it was no mistake, I quickly jumped to make the arrangements for Toshi and I to attend.
I covered the event here on the site, but what I haven't covered is the way that trip continues to resonate for Toshi. He talks about it often, and he remembers who he got to meet and what he got to do. He remembers the actual props we saw in the Skywalker Ranch archives, and he talks about seeing those things the way the most devout people talk about visiting Lourdes or Mecca. He's not sure what he wants to do with his life, but he's starting to play around with storytelling and he's also fascinated by how stories get told, and he's told me that he never really thought about how a movie was made until this trip.
What the trip represented to me was a moment where a torch got passed. When I was young, I drove my parents crazy talking about "Star Wars." I was obsessed from the moment it was released in 1977, and it only got worse over time. It must have been like living with a kid who only speaks in a foreign language. These days, I am no longer an expert on the minutiae of all things "Star Wars." It's safe to say that Toshi knows more about it than I do, because it is part of his inner fantasy life right now in a way that it hasn't been for me for decades now. Seeing that fire in him, seeing the belief he has in the world of "Star Wars," is enormously moving to me because I know what that love did for me, how it shaped me. He's in good hands, and vice-versa. I look at Toshi and I think that fandom's going to be in pretty great shape once he and his peers are the loudest voices in it, and they're going to have so much "Star Wars" to share and enjoy that I'm jealous. The world I craved is the world of his childhood, and sharing that with him has been a treat.
25. The story I can't tell here
Here’s the thing. There are at least 25 more stories that could qualify for this entry. There are legal reasons for some of them, personal reasons for others, and a few that would simply get me fired for poor taste. I could tell stories about living in the apartment below Tom Arnold. I could tell stories about epic debauchery involving people who would shock you, no matter what you already think of celebrities in general. I could tell you about some of the more striking moments of bad behavior on my own part, some of which I'm lucky to have survived. But all of that is going to be wrapped up and filed under "Not worth the consequences" as we wrap this look back after something like 30,000 words.
LA has been the only place I’ve lived anywhere near this long in my entire life, and at this point, it is my home. No matter where I live in the future, everything I do and everything I have will have something to do with this era. I have become the man I am while living here, for better and for worse.
Twenty-five years in one city is almost unimaginable to me, but I did it. Before I moved to Los Angeles, I had lived in at least seven different cities, and moving was something I had internalized as part of life. I hadn't been able to build life-long friendships because it was just too hard to stay in touch back then. When I arrived in Los Angeles all those years ago, I was 20 years old, and I was determined. I was not going to leave until this city gave me what I wanted.
Along the way, I have made tons of mistakes. I have made and lost friends. I have regrets to spare, and I have memories I treasure. I have lived loudly during my time here, and I have done it on my terms all the way through. I have been enormously lucky, and I recognize that at the same time that I have put in an enormous amount of work to make that luck happen.
If I start naming people, I will only manage to forget hundreds that I should include, so let me just say that all of these experiences are because of the amazing, incredible, endlessly entertaining parade of friends and business associates and family and foes who have all been part of this quarter-century. It has been many things, but it has never been boring, and as I look ahead at whatever else I'm going to do, I can only do that because of every one who has been part of everything I've done so far. Whether participant or reader, I owe all of you my thanks. Looking back at all of this, at these five articles, at the notes I made while putting it together, I actually feel better. I may have started this last installment feeling down, but even just this simple act of writing it down and sorting it out has made me feel lighter, more confident about the potential of the future. After all, look how far I've come.
Now let's get busy with what's next.